“Attention grocery shoppers!”

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.

It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.

And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).

One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.

Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?

My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.

Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.

“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”

“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.

“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”

Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.

“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)

Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.

And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.

But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.

I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.

“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”

“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)

“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”

Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

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